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Brushing Up On Your Personal ROI: Improving Your Leadership Skills

“Do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” — Benjamin Franklin, American Founding Father.

Brushing Up On Your Personal ROI: Improving Your Leadership Skills by Laura Stack #productivity #leadershipDespite what some seem to believe, few of us leap into our careers with our abilities fully formed. Yes, exceptions exist: writer Robert A. Heinlein sold the very first story he ever wrote, then proceeded to rule as one of the Big Three science fiction writers for close to 40 years. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a child prodigy, seemed capable of plucking melodies out of the air.

But they were exceptions, and as the saying goes, the exceptions prove the rule. Most of us must grow into our jobs—even leaders. Leadership may come easily for you, but it’s always good to brush up on your skills:

1. Continuous use. Complacency ruins teams, killing productivity. Rather than issuing orders and assuming things will go your way, actively seek out your teams’ input. Take the initiative to schedule 1-on-1 meetings and ask for input. Listen to their needs and requests, as well as their gripes. Tools you use continually might require more maintenance, but they also become more familiar, easier to use, and fit your hand better as time rolls on. Listening is one of these skills.

2. Never stop learning. Just because you’ve reached a particular place in your career doesn’t mean you can’t do better. Even if you like where you are, never stop learning! Arrogance means you believe you have nothing left to learn. Study the product your group produces until you know it inside and out. Take classes toward an upper-level degree in management or a free online course from one of the many institutes of higher learning. When you capture your new knowledge or degree, you’ve not only improved yourself as a manager, you’ve added to the cachet of your team and organization.

3. Improve your relationships with your co-workers. Do your team members and fellow leaders view you as abrasive, unreliable, tightfisted with data, or even as a micromanager? If you don’t know, find out using a 360-degree assessment—and start polishing away your rough edges. To paraphrase country singer John Anderson, you may be an old chunk of coal, but you can be a diamond someday. Diamonds command far more attention than coal. Not to mention that when you get along better with people, you can handle your crew and your co-workers better, inevitably increasing your productivity and your personal ROI.

4. Improve your health. When you get enough sleep, eat the right foods, regularly hydrate yourself, slim down, and make a commitment to mental health, you’ll feel better. You’ll relate better to others. You’ll get more done, and your productivity will increase overall. Very few professions, with the possible exception of stand-up comic, clown, and guinea pig, require you to feel bad in order to excel. The relatively small amount of time you spend keeping yourself in good shape can translate into greater work results.

5. Seek Multiple Positives. Some things you do to benefit yourself won’t do much to help your organization. Obviously, buying a new bass boat won’t directly assist your team, though if it does make you happy, you’ll be easier to deal with and more likely to make your team’s work life more enjoyable. But benefits like earning an advanced degree help not just you but everyone around you. Ditto for your increased health, and any other activity that increases your productivity and efficiency at work.

6. Prepare for crises. When you have time, create or polish up your crisis plans. Make sure they’re specific enough to deal with something debilitating, like if a key staff person dies or leaves the company, but general enough to handle a million-to-one event like a giant meteor exploding over your city (look up “Chelyabinsk” on Wikipedia if this doesn’t ring any bells). While you probably won’t handle such situations often, knowing what to do gives you a sense of calmness.

Over and Out

The idea of self-improvement has been popular for decades, so much so that it represents one of the top-grossing industries in America. Most of us should feel pretty good about ourselves by now, and function at the top of our game. But if you’ve stayed pretty much the same, make an effort to improve yourself. It might not be easy, but you’ve never let a little hard work stop you. Sure, you’ve proven yourself quite the worker by climbing to the managerial ranks in the first place—but being good suggests you can get better. And you must, because the old “if we rest, we rust” cliché contains a core of truth. Use it or lose it. If you don’t make a commitment to improve your leadership skills, they’ll get rusty, and they may drop away at the least opportune time. The penalty for complacency is low personal productivity—and a dangerously low personal ROI for your company.

The Top Five Workplace Time-Traps

The Top Five Workplace Time-Traps by Laura Stack #productivityRemember cartoon character George Jetson’s grueling two-hour workday, which earned him a deluxe apartment in the sky? Whatever happened to that future? Instead of enjoying a shrinking workweek due to better technology, as we’ve expected for decades, the average American workweek has actually grown to nearly 60 hours!

How is it that we have less discretionary time and work harder than ever, even though technological breakthroughs have made us all incredibly productive?

To be blunt, some of it’s due to simple inefficiency. I’ve been a productivity expert for two decades, and I see my colleagues and clients battling the exact same dragons over and over again. In this month’s column, let’s take a look at the five biggest time-traps that drag down our productivity, and how to deal with them.

Trap #1: Poor Prioritization

Poor prioritization comes in two basic flavors: either you can’t effectively juggle multiple tasks on your own, or you’re trying to please a boss who labels everything urgent and top priority. Either flavor can generate the paralysis of analysis, in which nothing significant gets done, or the need to work longer just to keep up with the workload.

Whatever the cause, if you find yourself in this time-trap, you may soon fall prey to overwork and overwhelm. The solution is one of those “easy to say, hard to do” conundrums: you have to confront the problem and wrestle it into submission before it destroys your productivity altogether.

If your lack of organization is the problem, sit down and start ruthlessly triaging your daily to-do list. Reduce your must-do tasks to the few items that truly matter, based on your job requirements and whatever your supervisor assigns to you. Drop anything you can, give misplaced tasks to the people they really belong to, and delegate others whenever possible. Move “someday” tasks back to your Master List until you have time to deal with them.

If your boss considers everything he assigns you top priority, due yesterday, then meet with him and respectfully ask that he realistically prioritize your projects. If he can’t or won’t, then you’ll just have to do it yourself.

Trap #2: Distractions/Interruptions

Loud conversations, ringing phones, unscheduled interruptions, email alerts, and our own wandering attention all drag us out of our work focus repeatedly during a typical workday. Occasionally we also have to deal with crises, emergencies, and communications breakdowns.

As with most time-traps, the solution here usually boils down to the firm application of self-discipline. Rather than allow the same things to constantly interrupt your focus, find a way to deal with them once and for all. If noise is a problem, start wearing noise-canceling headphones and listening to music or ambient sound as you work. If you need to focus, don’t answer emails and phone calls as soon as they come in. Turn off email alerts and let calls roll over to voicemail. Go to a quieter place to work. If you have an assistant, filter your communications through them first.

Trap #3: Overwork

It surprises me that this trap occupies third place on my list, but that’s where the statistics place it. I’d expect it to be #1, because we’ve all complained at one time or another, “There’s not enough time in the day!” And it’s just getting worst: as the American workforce stretches toward a productivity breaking point, it seems that most of our leaders are dumping more work on us than we can handle in a given day.

But time remains our most precious resource; given the set length of the day, we can give up only so much of the time we need for sleep, good health, socializing, family, and all the other things that make life worth living. You have no choice but to more firmly control your behavior, trimming away the unimportant and tightly controlling how you spend every minute of your workday. Firm, consistent time management and hard work are the only way to pull out of this trap.

Trap #4. Poor Self-Discipline

Among those I’ve surveyed, poor self-discipline falls fourth on the list of recognized time traps. But whether we’re willing admit it or not, a simple lack of willpower gives rise to almost all of our time traps. It’s the grandparent of lost productivity. Many of us have problems maintaining focus on work, for a variety of reasons: interruptions and distractions, disinterest, attempts at multitasking, or a simple inability to concentrate. Some fail at setting or hitting goals, or simply being punctual. The solutions I’ve already outlined in the previous time-traps can solve these problems. Tighten up that willpower, apply draconian time-management techniques, and take back your workday.

A secondary issue expressed by about a quarter of those who cite this as their biggest time trap is procrastination. For a variety of reasons—fear of failure or success, dislike, disinterest, overwhelm, confusion, and the like—we drag our heels on some tasks. The only way to overcome this issue is to force yourself to “eat the frog,” as Brian Tracy puts it, taking care of the issue immediately instead of putting it aside for later. Big, daunting tasks require reduction into smaller subtasks with their own mileposts and deadlines you can more easily handle.

Trap #5: Poor Organization

Personal chaos can also bog you down. If you don’t take a little time each day to organize your data, plan out your tasks, write to-do lists, and otherwise prepare for what’s coming up, you may end up wasting large chunks of time looking for things, figuring out what to do next, trying to track your action items, and in general untangling the snarled web of your workflow. Refuse to accept such chaos in your life. You may not be able to control how well other people organize their lives, but you can certainly control your own.

First, set up a simple filing system for paper and electronic files, using a logical, intuitive naming protocol, and file things as you receive them. You shouldn’t have to take more than a minute or so to find any piece of information you need. Next, adopt an organizational system that meets the “HUG” criteria of Handy, Usable, and Garbage-free. It can be paper, electronic, or a hybrid of both. Keep all your schedules and contacts—work, personal, and family—in that organizer, carefully annotated and separated.

Make time not only to plan, but also to review your big picture work, to ensure you know what’s working and what isn’t for both you and your team. Then take steps to make any necessary repairs. The time you spend now will help you avoid train wrecks later.

The Bottom Line

There you have it: my list of the five top time management traps, based on two decades of helping people hone their workplace productivity. There are others, but these are the worst of the worst. Ultimately, working your way free of any of these problems comes down to clamping down hard on your self-discipline, then bringing a laser-sharp focus to bear on what truly matters—and nothing more. It may not be easy to do, but it really is as simple as that.

The Need of the Hour: Managing vs. Coaching

“Seek opportunities to show you care. The smallest gestures often make the biggest difference.” — John Wooden, American basketball player and coach.

The Need of the Hour: Managing vs. Coaching by Laura Stack #productivityDespite what some people may think, being a manager is no walk in the park. In fact, the combination of mental work, social interaction, project juggling, time management challenges, high pressure, responsibility, and variability makes it among the more demanding types of work any person can take on. The hours are terrible and the stress is inevitable.

But if organizations expect to accomplish anything of consequence, they must have managers, from the front line supervisor on up. While a manager may not directly produce whatever it is an organization makes, they do facilitate and organize team productivity, clearing the way for others to succeed with a minimum of obstacles.

However, a true leader acts as more than just a manager, driving the team’s performance; they also act as a coach in the best sense of the word: laying out the general strategy with their talented, trusted team members, who then run with the ball while the coach steps out of the way. So when should you be one or the other?

The Managerial Side of the Job

Managers often have to tell others what to do to get a job done. You may have to act from greater experience, knowledge, or training, directly passing on your requirements through tasking, directives, and initiatives. This most often occurs in situations where immediate needs are paramount, and you need to achieve specific outcomes efficiently and quickly. Your team members look to you for answers, and rightly so in critical circumstances. Not that you don’t want them to think for themselves, but sometimes a team just needs someone to coordinate, while everyone else does their piece of the project. As a pure manager, you direct from a position of authority while guiding your team toward a specific outcome. Situations where managing is needed include:

  • Crises that require quick, positive results.
  • Handling new, inexperienced personnel, especially those tackling a task for the first time.
  • Making sure your team completes a low-level or unpopular task.
  • Meeting difficult deadlines when every minute counts.

The above situations require quick, decisive action focused on high productivity and achievement.

The Coaching Flipside

In this era of independent thinkers who must often execute in the moment without awaiting permission, the manager’s job has expanded. No longer does a manager just tell people what to do: he or she guides them in their work, clears obstacles from their paths, and supports their immediate and long-term career goals. Trusted, experienced, and efficient personnel form the hub of the true wheel of productivity, so coaching skills should take the lion’s share of your time. Coaching works best in situations where:

  • You support your team members while guiding them in their career goals.
  • You work together with your team members to define and facilitate the best strategies for your team and organization.
  • You share mission, vision, and goals in a transparent way with all your team members.
  • You invite your people to join you in a quest for success.
  • You facilitate everyone’s progress toward the goals you’ve mutually set, as well as toward organizational goals.

When you coach, you teach your people the ropes as necessary, acting as a mentor rather than autocrat, and otherwise make suggestions in real time concerning what they can do to tweak their behavior toward an optimum. When they don’t quite reach a standard, you praise what they did right, then outline where you think they showed weakness and what they can do to improve. You provide the tools they need to succeed—because when your team succeeds, so do you. Coaches create the kind of engaged, empowered employees needed for survival today.


Our workplace reality is currently undergoing a shift that’s been coming on for decades, as the technological innovations of the era combine with American independence to bring employees and managers ever closer on the employment continuum. No longer does the pure manager hold sway, because we no longer need them all the time. Yes, we require a firm hand at times, especially during crises and when dealing with green recruits. But otherwise, the coach has the upper hand in the drive toward excellence and a bountiful outcome.

The manager as coach provides the flexibility and agility all businesses require on the road to success, as well as the motivation and confidence individual team members must feel in order to take you there. Given these facts, it seems a foreordained conclusion that the importance of manager as coach rather than autocrat will continue to increase in the foreseeable future. If you haven’t already started the shift yourself, it’s time to begin.